I’m very intrigued by the way that different people can perceive the world in different ways.
In my study of the five senses, for my book Life in Five Senses, I was astonished by the degree to which we all inhabit different sensory worlds. I can’t smell my home the way a guest would smell it, and as a New Yorker, I don’t hear the sirens going past my apartment, while my sister Elizabeth in L.A. doesn’t hear helicopters buzzing overhead.
Sometimes, too, our perspective, our upbringing, and our culture lead us to interpret a situation in very different ways. I find that when I’m having a strong response, it can be helpful to remember, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to understand what’s going on.”
I was very struck when I came across a very dramatic example of how different people, from different backgrounds, could perceive an interaction.
This story comes from the book The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, in which journalist Tina Brown gives an account of the British royal family.
The Queen usually shows empathy with indirection. A former member of her staff told me how at a Palace lunch for worthy citizens, Her Majesty was seated next to a surgeon who had operated on the front lines in Iraq. He began to tear up as he described what it was like, and the Queen said, “I think this is a very good time to feed the dogs, don’t you?” She asked for the corgis to be sent in, and she and her guest surreptitiously slipped them morsels under the table until he had gained his composure. It was a gesture that to a British eye suggested exquisite tact, but to an American might read as a rebuff. — The Palace Papers, Tina Brown
Brown points out two ways to see this encounter.
With some optical illusions, I can make my eyes see two images: vase or faces; rabbit or duck. And in this case, I could see the encounter from both perspectives.
I could understand how a person could view the Queen’s action as showing compassion and wordless sympathy. I could also understand how a person could view the Queen’s action as showing a cold unwillingness to engage with someone’s pain.
What interests me is not the question of whether her action was considerate or inconsiderate, but rather, that it can be viewed in different lights. Remembering that people can see things in different ways can help us show more compassion for other people, and more humility about the limits of our own understanding.